Time is inescapable. It comes for us all, great baseball players included. It may slowly creep up on a player, or It may sneak up on him overnight, but the end is always the same; Father Time is undefeated.
Even so, until age inevitably saps our favorite athletes of their spark, it’s easy to believe that they will remain great indefinitely. there’s a reason why fans consistently predict that players will do better than projection systems like ZIPS will; ZIPS is rooted in things like regression to the mean, and aging curves, while we prefer to think that players can fight off age and regression.
Every year, we see ourselves proven wrong, the projections proven right, at least when it comes to some declining players. This year is no different. Plenty of players this season have seen age sap them of their abilities seemingly in an instant, leaving us to question if it’s truly all over for their careers.
Let’s take a look at some of the most notable players over whom time has won a sudden and decisive victory in 2017, and mourn the players they used to be, starting with;
You could argue Bautista’s decline wasn’t entirely overnight. Bautista did see a drop-off in production last season. He hit only 22 home runs, and posted a .234/.366/.452 slash line, which equated to a 122 wRC+.
That was certainly a dip from Bautista’s peak, when he was regularly smashing 40 bombs and running a wRC+ around 150. But his production was still nothing to sneeze at, and fairly impressive for someone of his age. He still expected to sign a free agent deal in excess of $100 million, and when that didn’t materialize, he felt confident enough to rebuild his value on a one-year, $17 million pillow contract back in Toronto.
Then the bottom fell out. Bautista has swiftly declined from a still well above average hitter to a an essentially unplayable right fielder. Bautista’s current line of .205/.312/.375 would barely be passable for a middle infielder during a low-offense era, much less a corner outfielder during a power-obsessed time.
With an 82 wRC+ and across-the-board poor reviews from defensive metrics, Bautista has rated as below replacement level per fWAR. He isn’t a good fielder or runner, and provides poor hitting while playing an low-end defensive position. Things just don’t look great in any capacity.
It would be wishful thinking to pin this on bad luck, rather than a quick deterioration of skills. Bautista’s hard-hit rate, per FanGraphs, has plummeted from 41% last season to 31% this season. Perhaps more troubling, his swinging strike rate has sky-rocketed, from 7.2% last year to 10.4% this year. That combination has torpedoed his value; once a patient, devastating power hitter that made tons of contact, Bautista no longer squares up the ball as often, and he’s struggling to simply make contact.
Bautista seems to know that he can’t wait for his pitch to drive the way he used to, and has amped up his aggressiveness in response. His swing rate is the highest its been in years, meaning that not only is he whiffing more, he’s swinging more, leading to more strikeouts and fewer walks.
At age-36, it’s hard to chalk up this disastrous season to anything other than age-related decline. It’s a shame, as for a moment, it seemed like Bautista could be the rare player that defies age for some time. He consistently made lots of quality contact into his 30’s, and as a late-bloomer, it was thought maybe he’d be a late-decliner as well.
Instead, it’s all gone south in a hurry for Bautista, and we’re left reminiscence over that 50-homer season Bautista produced seven years ago. That performance was just as out of nowhere as his sudden decline, but it appears now that Bautista is on his last legs, as are his aging team’s playoff hopes.
That Beltran made it this far without seeing the bottom fall out it is worth commending in itself. After his age-36 season, Beltran signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Yankees, one that looked foolhardy for a player of his age. Those concerns appeared justified when he struggled in his first year in pinstripes, posting a 97 wRC+, and seeing his skills as a defender continue to wane.
Rather than decline further, though, Beltran roared back. He posted a stellar .292/.364/.513 line in the second half of 2015, finishing the year with a 119 wRC+. He followed that up with a 124 wRC+ in 2016. Beltran proved a worthy investment for New York, and solidified his Hall of Fame case by simply continuing to rake in his old-age.
That run has ended this year. Beltran, now 40, seems to have finally succumbed to Father Time. His wRC+ on the season sits at an unsightly 79, thanks to a .233/.287/.393 line. The Astros liked him enough to guarantee him $16 million for 2017, but it’s hard to argue he should be in the lineup at this point for one of baseball’s best teams.
Like Bautista, Beltran appears to have simply lost his edge quickly, in terms of more than just performance, but in underlying skills as well. Statcast calculates an interesting metric called xwOBA, which estimates what a player’s wOBA *should* be based on his strikeout, walks, and quality of contact.
This year, Beltran’s xwOBA is .285. An actual wOBA about there would place Beltran among the backup shortstops and good-hitting pitchers. Compare that to 2015, when Beltran’s xwOBA was a relatively robust .354.
That Beltran’s expected results have plummeted like this suggests that his decline is not a mirage, and most likely a result of age. If Beltran’s downturn was caused by mere chance and variance, we would probably see that reflected in metrics like xwOBA. Instead, his struggles look every bit earned.
Even so, Beltran still looks like a good bet to make the Hall of Fame. His career WAR per Baseball Reference sits at a nicely round number of 70. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, which evaluates a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness, indicates that Beltran has all but met the standard set by the average Hall of Fame outfielder.
It just looks like that Cooperstown-caliber career is at its end. It’s not shocking that a player who’s clearly lost a step agility wise has finally seen his bat speed go. That doesn’t make it less of a bummer. That being said, maybe Beltran, owner of one of history’s best postseason lines, can finally get a ring as a member of the Astros this year.